Atletico Madrid’s aberrant ouster from the Champions League to a suddenly slick Chelsea, is perhaps both picture and trailer of what is and what could be a revealing season in Spain. Eleven games to go, a comfortable ten-point lead more than halved in no time and Atleti, famed working class battlers of the Spanish game, are suddenly showing the fear of the finish line.
Simeone’s side made Chelsea look a lot better than they have become under Thomas Tuchel. In doing so, they have also sparked a now-valid argument that Spanish clubs are probably no longer the monsters they once were across Europe. With Barcelona too gone and Real Madrid limping on, the rise of Mbappe and Haaland imminent, the debate over this alarming dip in standard – and loss of appeal – will rage once the season winds down.
For now, was it the fear of the looming domestic scrap that made Simeone give up on Europe so feebly? With a small, tight squad, he would be wary of an advancing Barcelona, who dug deep and eked out a streak to be within striking distance as they lock horns in the penultimate week of the season. Add to that, that tricky laid-back guile of Zidane and Real Madrid in the distance, and Atletico probably would have thought it best to preserve their resources to defend their Liga lead than expend it on the continent – another manifestation of a less rich club navigating the home stretch. Atletico had a budget of just 253m euros this season. For all their financial goof-ups, Barcelona still enjoyed 382.7m euros, while Real Madrid had 468.5m.
Atletico’s early surge, as Barca squabbled and Real sought new vision, was in large part to the ambition of Luis Suarez, seeking a vindication in his typical underdog fashion, almost making him the story of the season. In the 149 minutes over two legs against Chelsea, he had a mere two shots at goal. He hasn’t had a Champions League goal all season, but with 18 goals in 24 games so far in the Liga, his was the impetus that Atleti rode on at home.
Once top of the charts, the Uruguayan has since relinquished the top scorer spot to Messi – old friends, now rivals – and both seek personal redemption of sorts this season. Messi was adamant to leave Barcelona, Suarez was off-loaded unceremoniously. Now, as one seeks to cancel the other out, in Spain, a chasing pack sputters and a runaway leader finds himself lacking in pace.